Gliding down the Canal du Midi at a barge’s pace narrows your world but heightens your senses. From the cathedral of greenery overhead to the Camargue ponies gazing back from the banks, this is a serene barging adventure. The biggest decision faced is whether to go for a bike ride or wine-tasting before the next gourmet dinner onboard. Welcome to barging for beginners in la France profonde.
The Canal du Midi is the oldest canal in France, with the greatest concentration of heritage sites en route. As such, it deserves respect. The canal was pioneered by salt-tax collector Pierre-Paul Riquet in the 1660s. Designed to bring glory to Louis XIV, the Sun King, the canal remains a glorious link between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, these 150 miles of navigable waterways have barely changed over the centuries.
You could choose to bob up and down in a plastic boat and become a public menace on the waterways. Or you could do the canal in style, on a barging voyage of discovery. After you’ve stepped onboard Anjodi, a hand-crafted traditional Dutch barge, there is no turning back. Savour the nautical brass and panelling, the nightly wine-tastings, the seafood feasts on the sun-deck, the insider trails to moody chateaux. The European Waterways barge is fully-crewed but feels like a family affair – bar the fact that the family includes a gourmet chef, a sommelier-captain and a guide to the canal’s secrets.
On the Canal du Midi, spring signals a return to the water: bobbing boats; steadfast barges; breakfast by crooked stone bridges; communing with dumb ducks; battling with stroppy geese; rope-swinging by cascading staircases; gawping by locks. With a speed limit of eight kilometres per hour, this is life in the Slow Lane. But the canopies of greenery overhanging the Canal make the voyage akin to sailing through an Impressionist painting. The day’s drama is generally confined to the succession of locks, low bridges, aqueducts, tunnels, towpaths and mesmerising trees that make up the magic of the Canal du Midi.
From our perspective, any challenges en route tend to be comical rather than critical. At Capestang, we scarper when chased by territorial geese, guardians of these towpaths. But Captain Julian complains that novice sailors are the greatest challenge: "novices set sail in a piece of Tupperware and then panic when they see a proper barge bearing down on them." Despite the Captain’s best efforts, we experience a knock when barged into by panic-stricken boaters. The first-timers freeze, not realising that it’s hard for such a big barge to take swift evasive action. For a moment the air goes bluer than the Med, but then all is resolved with bonhomie. Anjodi glides on, leaving the chastened Tupperware Two trembling in her wake.